This week’s podcast and blog are about a topic everyone can relate to. Just a warning, this newsletter is the full blog. It’s long and personal. I hope you’ll hang in there since it’s a topic most of us struggle with; expectations. For years, I have been observing the negative effects of having expectations. I’ll give you two examples of how expectations can ruin everything. One from a client I saw years ago, and one from me.
Carol came to see me because she was having trouble finding a man. She was ready to settle down and get married but she kept picking men who weren’t in the same headspace. She was starting to question herself and she was becoming jaded and bitter. Then, it happened. She started dating a nice man who was also interested in settling down. They hit it off. Her excitement was palpable.
They had been dating for eight months when he asked her to go to Mexico. She came in to see me that week with a smile plastered on her face. She KNEW he was going to propose. She loved Mexico. She described for me, in detail, her expectations of the vacation. Although she didn’t say the word expectations, that’s indeed what they were. She had an image in her mind of exactly how the vacation would go. They would lie on the beach and swim in the ocean. They would go dancing at night. She would get a nice tan. She planned her wardrobe with cute, skimpy dresses he would love. They would hold hands and walk through the town, exploring little shops. He would probably propose at night, somewhere romantic. Sounds idyllic, right?
It wasn’t. It was overcast and cool much of the week. She was cold in her dresses. He drank cocktails with ice, and got “Montezuma’s revenge.” He wanted to party hard and she wanted romance. I don’t need to detail the whole week, but it didn’t end with a proposal. It ended with strain and a near break-up. Why? Because EXPECTATIONS ARE THE OPPOSITE OF BEING PRESENT AND OPEN TO THE MOMENT.
If you have an expectation of an event, reality can rarely live up to the experience you’ve imagined. No one ever dreams of a week at the beach filled with rain and gastric distress. No one dreams of heading to Disneyland for hours of standing in lines, whining kids and crappy food. No one dreams of a ski trip with no snow. Yet these things happen all the time. How then, should we handle our expectations?
I have been counseling clients to let go of expectations for years. One method is to simply state the reality of what is about to happen. “I’m going to Mexico for a week with my boyfriend.” If you state reality, and don’t visualize what SHOULD happen, you can let an experience unfold without being disappointed. If my client had simply been open to a week in Mexico, a few rainy days in a hotel room might have been romantic. However, if you have spent too much time visualizing perfection, reality will not impress. It can’t.
To make things even more complex, expectations occur naturally. This brings me to the second truth: EXPECTATIONS ARE HARD TO CONTROL. Our minds like to picture the future. It can be exciting to fantasize and plan. Without any effort, you can form expectations. They are like health. We all know what we are supposed to do, but it’s still hard to do it. Trust me, it is hard to NOT form expectations.
I fell into the expectation trap this week. I had been planning a trip to Paris with my family for months. It’s been a dream of mine to share the city I love with my father, sister and her family. As I planned the trip, booking museums and restaurants, my mind veered into the land of expectations. I innocently called them hopes. I hoped my father would enjoy the art and architecture I love, walk the streets and fall in love with Paris. I hoped we would all sit at cafés and walk along the Seine. The Paris in my head was in the 70s and sunny, without too many tourists, since summer was over.
It didn’t turn out as I expected. As you can imagine, it rained. It was wet and there were masses of people. The museums were crowded. My father wasn’t able to walk long distances and I often felt I’d overwhelmed him with too much activity.
Here is a perfect example of a day that my expectations ruined. My plan for Monday was to visit the Louvre with my family. We had tickets at 10:00. Then, Sunday night, the electricity went out in my apartment. My family was staying with me and, suddenly, it was dark. We had no hot water. I was embarrassed and upset. This was not what I envisioned! Why now?
Monday arrived and instead of wandering the Louvre with my family, I spent hours with my landlord, calling the electric company to come out and fix the problem. My landlord doesn’t speak any English and my French is spotty at best. Figuring out the problem and getting it fixed took hours. By the time I arrived at the museum, my family was exhausted by the heat and the crowds.
That night, as I sat in bed worrying that my family wasn’t enjoying the vacation, I suddenly realized what I was doing. It dawned on me that I had fallen into the expectation trap I counseled against so often. My jaw dropped. I was ruining my time because of the fantasy of the trip I’d built up in my mind. I laughed out loud. Just because I have a degree in psychology, doesn’t mean that life is easy. None of us is immune to the power of expectations.
I thought hard about what I should do to salvage the trip? What would I tell a client to do? The process I use with clients is to help them let go of their expectations and find their gratitude. My task that night was to find gratitude for the rain and faulty electricity. Here’s what I found. The rain made me slow down. I am someone who goes too fast, too often. My father is almost 79 and not in the best health. He can’t walk for miles and miles like he once could. The rain forced me to slow down, sit more often and do fewer things. The rain enabled my father to rest.
The gift in the power outage was more difficult to find, but I found it. My French got dramatically better. I also got to know my landlord, who is an amazing woman. Turns out, if you are forced to speak a foreign language for real, for hours, it helps dramatically. At dinner that night, a waiter told me my accent was pretty good! He gave me a menu in French as if I’d earned it. Then, a taxi driver told me he couldn’t tell I was American and he can always tell. It was such a compliment to me. I have wanted to learn French for so long, but it’s hard to converse enough to become fluent. The gift of the electric outage was hours of improvement of my language skills.
Once I was aware of what I’d done, I was able to let go of the rest of my expectations for the trip and simply be present. I wish I’d let go sooner. It turns out that having expectations is awfully powerful and not at all enjoyable.
The way to beat expectations is to develop an awareness of what they are. They are fantasies of perfection. Anytime you are living the future before it happens, you are developing an expectation. Once you become aware that you are forming and expectation, have a laugh about it as I did, and conscientiously, let it go. Then, simply open up to the present moment, whatever it brings. It’s so simple, but it is the cure for expectations. If expectations ruined some moment in the past, look for the gift that was there. Maybe you’ve been missing the gift because you have been focused on the disappointment. I promise, somewhere in almost every experience is a lesson and a gift.
Ask yourself if you have expectations in your life? Are you imagining a career path or a life partner? Have you mapped out how many kids you will have and what kind of house you will live in? Imagine that instead of helping you plan, expectations are limiting your life. You may miss the perfect man who is right in front of you, while looking for the Prince Charming you have imagined in your mind. Expectations have the power to ruin experiences, cause depression and create disappointment. I highly recommend telling them to f*ck off!
You can listen to me talk through this in the podcast by clicking ‘play’ below or in the following places:
Shannon Connery, Ph.D.